LOS ANGELES — It took three weeks and 15 games into the season, but better late than never for the LA Clippers to finally hold their real Opening Night.
They were finally whole on Wednesday when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George shared the floor together, suiting up against the Boston Celtics. Before that, the only significant time spent in each others company in uniform was this summer when they were introduced as the newest and most important members of the franchise. It was an event that shook the league and made the Clippers the title favorites. Given the club’s zero championships, that glowing projection had never been written or spoken by anyone before.
And, predictably, the league will not be conquered in a day or more accurately, a night where the Clippers defeated a Celtics team holding the East’s best record. They did so haphazardly (at times) before showing enough spunk in the fourth quarter and overtime to confirm their arrival as a team to be believed.
Perhaps these sketchy performances will be expected from the Clippers here in the early season because George missed the first 11 games and Leonard six. Therefore, the Clippers will reek of training camp smell until their stars develop better harmony and the rotation gets in sync.
Because at times in the 107-104 win over the Celtics, the Clippers passed up shots and were careless with their decision making and passing — perhaps in an effort to please one another. George and Leonard are the clear alpha dogs and not only were they too deferential to each other during stretches, so were their teammates, mostly to a fault.
“Twenty-three turnovers,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, with a sense of resignation. “We were so sloppy. We were trying not to get in each others’ way. We need a lot of work. We’re trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”
It’ll take more practice sessions to clean that up and gain a clearer understanding of roles, situations and flow. Because of injuries, the Clippers, George and Leonard simply haven’t had that chance.
“We were thinking in the office earlier today if we ever had two (stars) getting ready to play in a game, and they never had one practice together,” Rivers said. “We couldn’t come up with one.”
Don’t be misled, though … the Clippers’ glass is not exactly half empty. There was another aspect to the Clippers in their sneak preview “opener” that left much to be admired. They turn scrappy when cornered and fight when threatened. This was apparent when the Celtics snatched a 10-point lead late in the fourth and were rolling. In these situations, teams tend to discover what’s in their DNA and whether their desire level belongs in elite company, even here in mid-November.
The results show George is, at the very least, Leonard’s equal as a scorer. Lou Williams can take over games — even from Leonard and George — when necessary. Pat Beverley never runs empty on energy or fire. And Leonard — as he showed last spring — always seems to deliver in the clutch with a decisive play.
“Once we got started,” Williams said, “we saw how special this team can be.”
Williams helped erase the Celtics’ lead by scoring 13 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter and caused major problems in the final few moments of regulation. He’s a lethal scorer in his own right and in the 2019 playoffs — without George or Leonard around — he carried the Clippers late in games.
George finished with 25 points and drew double teams, which created open shots for teammates. It has been a torrid start for him this season since returning from shoulder surgery and rehab. To date, he’s scored 123 points in 110 minutes and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer vs. Oklahoma City on Monday.
One of those who benefited from the extra attention given to George and Leonard was Beverley. The Celtics picked their poison and their scouting report, no surprise, told them to let Beverley beat them. Ordinarily that’s the proper strategy as Beverley isn’t a scorer and the ball usually does not find him in tense moments.
But Beverley punished Boston with four 3-pointers (in seven tries) and was an all-around menace, with a career-high 16 rebounds, seven assists and two steals to go with his 14 points. His feisty tenor set the tone for the Clippers defensively late in the game as the Celtics and their highly efficient offense managed a tame 29 total points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
.@patbev21 impacted every phase of the game.
⬇️ @Kia Performance of the Game ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/p2c0BjjBLf
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) November 21, 2019
“They were trying to leave guys open,” Rivers said. “They left Pat open. They took the risk. He single-handedly willed that game for us.”
At the OT buzzer, Leonard reached and deflected Kemba Walker’s potential game-tying shot.
The development of the Leonard-George combo obviously will play huge in whatever success the Clippers have this season. It seems a match made in basketball heaven given their styles and unselfish ways. They can shoot the mid-range or three. They can attack the rim — see Kawhi’s poster dunk Wednesday that set social media ablaze — and bring the goods defensively. George is a four-time All-Defensive teamer while Leonard is a two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year.
Leonard and George can take turns guarding the other team’s big scorer, a luxury George didn’t have in Indiana and Oklahoma City and Leonard lacked for much of his time in San Antonio (and all last season in Toronto).
They can switch on and off in the same game. Expect to see this happen Friday when league scoring leader James Harden comes to town (10:30 ET, ESPN). Last week, Harden torched the Clippers for 47 points. This time, he’ll see Kawhi in his grill for stretches and then get George, with a little Pat Bev thrown in for irritant’s sake.
The elephant in the room is Kawhi’s health. Nobody expects him to play every game the remainder of the season, but he’s already on pace to miss 30. In 2018-19, he missed 22 with the Raptors. The good news is the Clippers can win without him (provided George remains healthy).
The better news is the Clippers are finally intact and complete, even though there are kinks to straighten, flaws to correct and a system that needs to be reset.
“We want to figure out how to win games and then become a good team,” Rivers said. “We’re a work in progress.”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .
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